April 2, 2007
Keeping the Faith at Trinity United Church of Christ
— Martin E. Marty
Note: This is not an endorsement of Senator Obama as a candidate.
Note: This is not a non-endorsement of Senator Obama as a candidate.
Note: I don't do endorsements.
Note: This is not even about Senator Obama.
It is about Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where the Senator was converted and is a member. Some editorials and the more strident TV networks and radio talkmeisters tell its story wrong, no doubt intentionally. Friendship for the church and its staff, and a desire to help set the church-reporting record straight, impel some comment here.
My sources for this Sightings are, of course, personal experience of the place and the people of Trinity — plus a dissertation and a book: Chicago Theological Seminary Professor Julia Speller's Walkin' the Talk: Keepin' the Faith in Africentric Congregations. I read the manuscript with care to write the foreword, and was familiar with the subject of the chapter on Trinity, since Speller was my dissertation advisee when she wrote a full-length work on the suddenly lime-lighted church. Not that it has ever been a shrinking violet, thanks to the energies of the people and the personalities on the staff, including the soon-retiring Pastor Jeremiah Wright. But now it's on the spot.
Trinity is the largest congregation in the whole United Church of Christ, the ex-Congregational (think Jonathan Edwards) and Reformed (think Reinhold Niebuhr) mainline church body. Trinity's rubric is "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian." So far as I can tell Trinity shapes a kind of ellipse around these two "centers," neither of which makes sense without the other. This you would never know from the slanders of its enemies or the incomprehension and naiveté of some reporters who lack background in the civil rights and African-American movements of several decades ago — a background out of which Trinity's stirrings first rose and on which it transformatively trades.
So Trinity is "Africentric," and deals internationally and
ecumenically with the heritage of "black is beautiful." Despite
what one sometimes hears, Wright and his parishioners — an 8,000-member
mingling of everyone from the disadvantaged to the middle class, and not
a few shakers and movers in Chicago — are "keepin' the faith."
To those in range of Chicago TV I'd recommend a watching of Trinity's
Sunday services, and challenge you to find anything "cultic"
or "sectarian" about them. More important, for Trinity, being
"unashamedly black" does not mean being "anti-white."
My wife and I on occasion attend, and, like all other non-blacks, are
Heretical? Hardly. Harriet and I sometimes come home reflecting and remarking that Wright sounds almost literalist about biblical texts when he preaches. The large-print texts are before the worshipers, and Wright, taking up the Gospel message line by line, applies it to personal, cultural, social, and political life. He turns much focus on the family. Of course, he can be abrasive. Why? Think of the concept of "unashamedly": tucked into it is the word "shame." Wright and his fellow leaders have diagnosed "shame," "being shamed," and "being ashamed" as debilitating legacies of slavery and segregation in society and church.
Trinity reorients. Wright and company have had tussles with more traditional members and, at times, some in the UCC. I've known "Jerry" Wright since his student days, have often agreed and disagreed with him, and have found him never to be a preacher of peace when there is no peace — but "walkin' the talk" for him is also a message of peace.
Julia Speller's Walkin' the Talk: Keepin' the Faith in Africentric Congregations is available from Pilgrim Press.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism: Religious, Irreligious, and Areligious" by W. Clark Gilpin. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the forces of faith in a pluralist society. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to issues related to religion and public life.
Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Please send all inquiries, comments, and submissions to Jeremy Biles, managing editor of Sightings, at email@example.com. Subscribe, unsubscribe, or manage your subscription at the Sightings subscription page.